Just two months shy of being elected president of the United States, Ike Eisenhower gave the only college address of his campaign in Northfield.
The largest crowd ever assembled for an event in Northfield was on Sept. 16, 1952, when Carleton’s Laird Stadium was stretched beyond its 9,000 seat capacity to more than 10,000 in order to accommodate an audience for a speech by Dwight D. Eisenhower, Republican candidate for president. Seating spilled out onto the track and the stadium reverberated not with cries of “First and ten, do it again,” but “I Like Ike!” Carleton’s president Laurence Gould commented, “This is the first time that both the Carls and the Oles have been in this stadium yelling for the same thing.”
It was Eisenhower’s last visit to Minnesota before the general election of Nov. 4 and his only college address. The speech was delivered to farmers, businessmen and other townspeople, but with an emphasis on younger voters. Clifford Stiles, a Carleton senior, had invited “Ike” through the Carleton Republican Club. Besides St. Olaf and Carleton, 14 other colleges from around the state sent car caravans and busloads of students.
A reception committee met General and Mrs. Eisenhower and their party of congressmen and other dignitaries, who arrived in an 18-car train, at the Northfield station. The committee included the presidents of Carleton and St. Olaf (Dr. Clemens Granskou and Dr. Larry Gould), selected college students, Republican chairpersons and mayor Oakey Jackson of Northfield. Mrs. Eisenhower was given a bouquet of flowers.
Most businesses in town closed in the morning so all could go to the event. Crowds lined the streets to see the Eisenhowers riding in a red convertible from the depot across the Third Street Bridge and down S. Division Street to the stadium. The Carletonian college newspaper reported: “Students, faculty and Republican-minded citizens of Minnesota flocked into Laird Stadium, joining the colorful and exhilarated throng. Bands representative of the various area high schools performed on the field as cheerleaders from Carleton and Macalester and three St. Olaf trumpeters led the crowd in an ‘I Like Ike’ cheer.” The bands came from Cannon Falls, Faribault, Farmington, Hastings and Northfield and the Northfield Male Chorus entertained. Carleton freshmen sold campaign buttons, ties, banners and hats to cover rally expenses and St. Olaf and Carleton lettermen ran refreshment booths.
Dr. Gould served as master of ceremonies and Eisenhower was introduced by Northfield’s own U.S. Senator Edward J. Thye. Gov. C. Elmer Anderson and other important political figures were on the platform. Joining St. Olaf and Carleton students in the audience were representatives from Augsburg, Concordia, Gustavus Adolphus, Hamline, Macalester, Mankato State Teachers’, St. Catherine, St. Cloud Teachers’, St. John’s, St. Thomas, Duluth University, Winona State Teachers’ and Worthington Junior College. One hundred cars came from the University of Minnesota alone.
Eisenhower’s opening comment was, “My very good friends, and you must be my friends, otherwise I don’t see how both St. Olaf and Carleton could have turned out here together,” which drew from the crowd what the Northfield News described as a “healthy laugh.” Eisenhower went on to compare the American and Communist ways and said, “If you can by co-operation show that you can outdo, outthink, outwork and outlearn any dictatorship that has ever existed no matter what its force, you will have done your part.” The Northfield News noted, “Wild cheers at the conclusion of his talk moved the general to remark, ‘This is the dandiest meeting I’ve had in a long time.’” The Carletonian summarized Eisenhower’s speech: “The General praised the part that the small college is playing in preserving the greatest value of a free America and called the small college ‘one of the greatest symbols of a free America.’” The radio broadcast of the speech was carried over WCCO in Minneapolis, WCAL of St. Olaf and KARL of Carleton and was “kinescoped” over CBS-TV for later broadcast.
After the speech, The Carletonian quoted a St. Olaf letterman as saying, “Eisenhower displayed great foresight in coming to speak to us college students. His interest in the youth vote is shown through this part of the campaign.” One St. Olaf student, however, said, “We can’t take a chance on a Republican candidate now” and five men from Rosemount said they did not like his policies and “he does a lot of talking without saying much.” An Augsburg student said, “It’s wonderful that the colleges have the opportunity to get together and hear Ike. We do need a change in the two-party system. He is the only one who can bring us through, considering present world circumstances, for he is the best.” (Eisenhower’s popularity can be seen in a later presidential poll of Carleton students which showed Eisenhower was favored by 75.9 per cent of the vote to Adlai Stevenson’s 24.1 per cent.)
Just before the caravan of cars left to take the Eisenhowers back to the depot, the Northfield News account said that “swarms of people” gathered around the car to shake hands with both Ike and Mamie. Among those swarms were two very excited 12-year-old Northfield boys. Dan Freeman described their experience in this way:
“I was there with my buddy Doug Westerlund. We sat up into the wee hours of the morning that day working on a WE LIKE IKE sign. It was on a sheet and was about five feet by ten feet. Sadly, when we held it up in the stadium, we blocked several peoples’ view of the proceedings. One of the security people came to us and brought us down to the track where we could lift it without blocking anyone’s view. After Ike finished his talk, the same security fellow brought us over to Ike and he signed our sheet right after he sat down in the back seat of the convertible. I have hunted high and low for that autograph without any success and I now believe it got thrown out by someone way back in the ’50s.”
Presidents Taft, Theodore Roosevelt, Ford, Carter, Clinton and Obama have also visited Northfield (see below), but even Clinton, who gave a commencement address at Carleton when he was president in 2000, did not speak to a crowd as large as the one proclaiming “I Like Ike!” at Laird Stadium in 1952.
Thanks to Eric Hillemann of the Carleton Archives for information and photos of Eisenhower’s visit and to Jeff Sauve of the St. Olaf Archives for additional research assistance. Thanks also to Dan Freeman for his memory of the day “Ike” came to Northfield.
Presidential Visits to Northfield, 1908-2004
(Including Pre-Presidential and Post-Presidential Stops)
Sept. 26, 1908 – Republican presidential candidate William Howard Taft passes through Northfield en route to Minneapolis. Thousands wait in “nasty cold weather” for a brief railway stop, highlighted by the mayor’s daughter, Mildred Ware, dressed as Columbia, greeting him on a festively bedecked elephant borrowed from a street carnival. The portly Taft says, “I am pleased to see this beautiful emblem of party victory. I should like to mount the animal myself, but I am afraid there isn’t time to rig a derrick to get me on there.”
Oct. 23, 1911 – Residents stand in muddy streets in a downpour to greet President Taft as he again passes through Northfield and makes a brief address from the rear platform of the train. Amid cheers, President Taft singles out the college ladies, saying he appreciates their presence more “than where they tear their throats out in yells.”
March 29, 1912 – Former president Theodore Roosevelt, hoping to succeed President Taft and gain a third term, is greeted by several thousand residents at the train depot. The Northfield Independent reports: “A brief glimpse was all that was vouchsafed the expectant multitudes as the train pulled out again after a stop of only about two minutes.”
Roosevelt tells the crowd he believes the average American is a “mighty good sort of a fellow and his wife is better still” and that they should not be dictated to by political bosses.
Sept. 16, 1952 – Dwight David Eisenhower, war hero and Republican presidential candidate, speaks to 10,000 at Carleton College’s Laird Stadium, his only college campaign address. The crowd includes students from St. Olaf, Carleton and 14 other colleges around the state, along with other supporters.
March 12-14, 1959 – Gerald Ford, a Michigan Congressman at this time, comes to St. Olaf for the 2nd annual Political Emphasis week.
Feb. 24, 1992 – A crowd of about 1,700 hear former President Jimmy Carter give a convocation speech in Boe Memorial Chapel at St. Olaf. He urges the audience to act locally on humanitarian causes.
Feb. 5, 1999 – Barack Obama starts the celebration of Black History Month at Carleton College at a convocation at Skinner Memorial Chapel. At the time of this talk, he is an Illinois state senator, civil rights attorney, University of Chicago professor and author. His topic is “Politics and Public Life.”
June 10, 2000 – President Bill Clinton gives the commencement address at Carleton College. He speaks to an audience of 7,000 about finding ways to make a college education accessible to more Americans.
Feb. 21, 2004 – Former President Jimmy Carter delivers the keynote speech at the 16th annual Nobel Peace Prize Forum hosted by St. Olaf. His former Vice President, Walter Mondale of Minnesota, introduces him to the crowd of 2,700 people at Skoglund Auditorium. Carter speaks of the importance of helping other countries obtain basic needs and of addressing the chasm between rich and poor.